There is no cantata for this Sunday, since Bach didn’t write any cantatas for Lent. So I thought maybe it would be nice to share some background stories I wrote over the past years that aren’t related to any specific cantata, but might be unknown to those who subscribed to this blog after January 2018.
I started writing this blog in January 2016, as a tribute to my mother, and have now published 180 posts. In 2018, I explained how the birth of my blog was prompted by a broken dishwasher. You can find that story here.
On January 31, 2021, Philippe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Gent performed three cantatas at the beautiful concert hall “De Singel” in Antwerp, Belgium. In my humble opinion, this was a very moving and inspired performance, and my hat is off to everyone on stage, that they were able to find this energy and inspiration in Bach’s music, in the texts, and in making music together, because they were performing without an audience. Please find the live video recording here on YouTube. Soloists are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Guy Cutting, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
I provide a bit of a review and a bit of a listening guide here, with links to my blog posts from previous years about these three cantatas. I did not grow up with any of these cantatas, they weren’t part of the repertoire my mother played on the turntable at home. I learned about them in the process of doing research and writing for this blog (and through other people, in the case of Cantata 127).
Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott
This cantata, written for today, the last Sunday before Lent, is a great choice for the start of a concert, because it immediately grabs you and draws you in. I already hold a special place in my heart for this music because of the soprano aria (beautifully sung here by Dorothee Mields) being performed at my mother’s funeral service in The Hague in 2010. But even without that, the work is in my all-time top 10. And I am not alone: Bach biographer Spitta called it “perhaps the most important” cantata, and it received “the most beautiful” qualification by Arnold Schering as well as Ton Koopman.
The cantata is part of Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of chorale cantatas, and compared to all previous compositions in that cycle, this opening chorus is the most complex and intricate. Click on the link at the end of this paragraph to read why. I love hearing Collegium Vocale sing this. Dorothee Mields and Peter Kooij are fabulous in their arias, and I enjoy hearing and watching tenor Guy Cutting sing. He’s a new star in the Herreweghe firmament. The soprano aria is of course stunning, but what about that bass aria? Whether a foreshadowing of the St. Matthew Passion or a dramatic end to the series of chorale cantatas, Bach had clearly made “studies” for it in his previous three cantatas of that year. Read all about it in my blog post from 2018.
Cantata 138 Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz
I am so happy with the video recording from January 31, because it eliminates a dilemma for me. When I first wrote about this cantata (written for the 15th Sunday after Trinity in 1723), I wasn’t able to choose between Herreweghe’s recordings from 1992 and 2013, but I feel the video recording from this year is the clear winner! I love the inspired singing by all four soloists, but find Alex Potter’s singing in this cantata especially stunning. In his recitative (starting at 26:23), the combination of his understanding of the text and what he can do with his voice moves me deeply. So much that when the choir basses then follow with their beautiful entrance, I am close to tears. If you feel I’m getting too sentimental here, don’t worry. My blog post from 2016 is about completely different things: a European children’s animation, a possible, “movie script scenario,” explanation of the relatively simple text in this cantata, and Bach’s recycling of the bass aria.
Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde
What a wonderful surprise that Herreweghe included this cantata (written for the 16th Sunday after Trinity but also for the Purification of Mary/Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which was February 2) in this program. It is such a beautiful and moving composition. In my blog post from this past fall I could only describe how in 2019, when programming the All Souls program for the Netherlands Bach Society, Alex Potter had the brilliant idea to combine the recorders from the Weimar version of this cantata with the sung chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End from the Leipzig version. What a delight to see that Herreweghe had adopted this exact idea for this performance in Antwerp, and that we can thus hear and see Alex Potter and Dorothee Mields perform this opening movement together. I love all the singing and playing in this cantata very much, but for me, the tenor aria can’t rival the magic of Shunske Sato accompanying Thomas Hobbs in those All Souls concerts by the Netherlands Bach Society in 2019 (as described here).
For this third Sunday after Epiphany, Bach wrote four cantatas, and again I have written about all of them over the past years. I still stand by all my recommendations for recordings, so I’m just going to refer you to the old posts. Please find all the links below.
Unlike last week, this time you won’t find four different paintings of “Jesus healing [or cleansing] a leaper,” the Gospel story for this Sunday, because I seriously have only been able to find two paintings over the years: the one I used in my very first post from 2016, and the one I’m including in this post. I can find several illustrations of “Jesus healing ten leapers” (which is a different story), but not of this story. So if any of you knows of a painting somewhere, please let me know. (I prefer 17th century or older, because I’d like it to depict imagery that Bach would have been familiar with).
Cantatas 72 (at least partly from 1715) and 73 (from 1724) can be found in this post, Cantata 111 from 1725 in this post, and Cantata 156 (from 1729) in this post.
For this Sunday, the second Sunday after Epiphany, Bach wrote three heart-wrenchingly beautiful cantatas, all more or less focused on the Gospel story of the day: the Marriage at Cana. But none of these cantatas are festive.
In Cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange from 1715 (and performed again during Bach’s first year in Leipzig, 1724), Bach illustrates the hand-wringing and desperation expressed by Jesus’ mother Mary in several different ways, including a Monteverdi-like “lamento bass.” Read it in my blog post from 2017, titled Mary’s Lament.
Cantata 3 Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, from 1725, takes up a special place within Bach’s 1724/1725 chorale cantata cycle, because the chorale melody appears in the bass part of the opening chorus. It gets doubled by a trombone, and this makes it “good kind of stomachache” music for me. There are not many things better than a Bach opening chorus with trombones. But much more is happening in this cantata. Read it all in my blog post from 2016, titled Hidden messages.
I wrote about Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen only last year, and found out that Bach must have been inspired by Cantata 155 when writing this one. Read it here.
If you have been following this blog for a while, and have thus already read all these posts, I have two interesting news items for you:
Two young Early Music musicians, Anne Charrier and Ben Kazez, came up with a useful project to pass the months and months of performance-free life. They hand-catalogued 1,699 movements from J. S. Bach cantatas, put the entire database on a website, and gave it a nifty search feature so you can find for example all arias for soprano and oboe, that one tenor aria that was about “Jammertale” (if you are as nerdy as me), or … all opening choruses with trombone :-). Find it here.
David Chin of Bachfest Malaysia compiled his part documentary, part travel show Encountering Bach series and some extra video material into one longer movie. I highly recommend this! The story is now in chronological order, which is helpful I think. It’s a wonderful way to virtually travel to all the Bach towns in Germany with some excellent guides! The movie takes you through Bach’s life and his works from his birth in Eisenach through the last 27 years of his life in Leipzig. Find it here on YouTube.
For me, December 27 is always the Third ChristmasDay , whether it falls on that other cantata day, the Sunday after Christmas, or not. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, there are two days on which people celebrate Christmas: December 25 and 26. Special meals are eaten on both days. And because the country is so small, you can visit one part of your family on the 25th and then see the other part on the 26th. Most relatives expect you to do this. So, when I was a child, Third Christmas Day was always our first “free” day during the Christmas break, without church visits, meal prep, having to dress up (even though I liked that), or commitments to family.
We had a standing arrangement with friends for this day: if there was enough snow on the ground, and if we were in town, we would go cross-country skiing together on the only hill in our region. It was a half-joke, because the Netherlands isn’t very snowy, and it would take an extraordinary winter for there to be enough snow on the ground for cross-country skiing. When I was 16 we moved away from that region, so it maybe happened only once that we actually did this together with the other family, but just the idea was fun, and it didn’t feel like something we “had” to do to any of us.
This was a long introduction to justify why I am sharing a cantata for Third Christmas Day on this blog today, when I should be sharing cantatas for the Sunday after Christmas instead, as that day officially overrides the other.
Ever since I found out this video of Cantata 133 Ich freue mich in dir(I rejoice in you) existed, on November 1st of this year, I had been planning to share it today. It features two absolutely gorgeous tender arias by some of my favorite soloists and the wonderful ambiance Concerto Copenhagen always manages to convey in their Christmas videos. So here your are: Cantata 133 Ich freue mich in dir, written in 1724, by Concerto Copenhagen, from their 2011 Christmas concert, starring Alex Potter in the alto aria and Maria Keohane and her beautiful berry-red dress in the soprano aria. Find the video here, the text and translations here, and the score here.
Cantatas for Third Christmas Day have all been discoveries for me since I started writing this blog. None of these were cantatas my mother played on the turn table at home, probably for two reasons: 1. It was the day for the third cantata from the Christmas Oratorio (and this one was my sister’s favorite); 2. After playing the one cantata, we were usually off doing other things afterwards (see above), and my mother must have felt the “freedom” of this day too.
I will take a break for the next two weeks, and not post again until Sunday, January 17. Our first-born is flying the nest exactly two weeks from today, to go live on a college campus on the other side of the country, and we won’t see him in person again until May. So I would like to spend my time these next two weeks cooking, hiking, and laughing with the family, and helping my son get ready.
Here are some links for further reading and listening during those two weeks:
More cantatas for today:
Cantata 151 Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, written for Third Christmas Day in 1725. I recommended the performance by Maria Keohane (wearing a white and gold Christmas dress) with the Netherlands Bach Society in my post from 2019. Find it here.
Cantata Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein, written for the Sunday after Christmas in 1724. In addition to recommending the Herreweghe recording, in my blog post from 2017 I share my research as to why the word “Jubeljahr” (Jubilee) appears in this cantata.
Cantata 64 Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, written for Third Christmas Day in 1723. I recommended the recording by Harnoncourt and Bach Collegium Japan in my post from 2016. Find that here.
Or watch the cantata for the Third Christmas Day from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio following my links in this post.
Cantatas for New Year’s Day:
Watch the fourth cantata of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by the J.S. Bach Foundation. You can find it here. The fourth cantata is my favorite part of the Christmas Oratorio, and soprano Miriam Feuersinger is absolutely fabulous in this performance.
Read my blog post from 2017 about Cantata 41 Jesu, nun sei gepreiset. Or explore on your own: Bach wrote several other cantatas for this day which I haven’t discussed on this blog yet: BWV 190 in 1724, BWV 16 in 1726, and BWV 171 in 1729.
It has been hard to read the newspapers this week and not be touched or even completely floored by human suffering. That’s why Cantata 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (from 1724) is like a warm bath to me. The two horns in the orchestra already make my day, but there is also a strong presence of angels in the text and music of this cantata.
Watch a wonderful live registration of this cantata on YouTube by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with Monika Mauch, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Bernhard Berchtold, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
Find the text and translations here, and the score here.
In the opening chorus (with the ascending scale of fast notes), Bach illustrates the “host of angels” singing, or, as Eduard van Hengel says, even “flapping their wings.”
Last year I already talked about how in most of his cantatas for Christmas Day, Bach focuses on Jesus’ journey from the godly realm, the heavenly glory, to being a struggling man on earth. It is very moving then to hear this following text in the bass solo. And it is a true Christmas present to me that it is Peter Kooij who is singing this on the J.S. Bach Foundation video, because he is one of the best to interpret texts like these. Note how Bach illustrates the “Jammertal” (vale of sorrow) at the end.
O Christenheit! Wohlan, so mache die bereit, Bei dir den Schöpfer zu empfangen. Der grosse Gottessohn Kömmt als ein Gast zu dir gegangen. Ach, lass dein Herz durch diese Liebe rühren; Er kömmt zu dir, um dich for seinen Thron Durch dieses Jammertal zu führen.
O Christendom! Come now, prepare yourself to welcome the creator amongst you. The mighty Son of God has descended and comes to you as a guest. Ah, let your heart be moved by this love; He comes to you, in order to lead you through this vale of sorrow to his throne.
In the beautiful soprano-alto duet (arguably the best part of this cantata), Bach brilliantly illustrates the contrast between the human suffering and the heavenly angels. He sets the suffering parts of the text to chromatic lines, similar to those just introduced on that word “Jammertal” in the bass solo. To the heavenly angels he gives happy, dotted rhythms.
While I grew up waking up to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on Christmas Day (read more about this tradition here), these days I much prefer listening to all the other, earlier cantatas Bach wrote for the period between from December 25 to January 6. However, there are two new video projects of the Christmas Oratorio just out or about to be launched this year that I don’t wish to ignore, so for those of you eager to watch and listen to any of that, here’s my one-paragraph overview:
Bach never intended this oratorio to be performed on one day. The Christmas Oratorio consists of six cantatas that were each meant to be performed on a different Sunday or holiday: First Christmas Day, Second Christmas Day, Third Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Sunday after New Year, and Epiphany. The J.S. Bach Foundation in Switzerland recently released all six cantatas for free on their YouTube channel. You can find the list of videos, one for each cantata, here. If you enjoy watching these videos, please consider donating to the organization so they can continue to pay their musicians and produce these wonderful registrations. Voces8’s excellent “Live from London Christmas” paid programming features all six cantatas performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh. Appropriately, each cantata will go live on the day for which it was intended. You can purchase this series here.
Advent for me is also about baking. As I write this on Saturday afternoon, my daughter is baking Dutch Speculaas cookies to give to her friends for Christmas. The whole house is filled with the delicious scent of orange peel, cinnamon, clove, ginger, cardamom, and aniseed. Traditionally these cookies are only eaten in the Netherlands around St. Nicholas (Dec 5), and not really associated with Advent or Christmas. However, being expats, we tend to mix up the traditions a bit.
There is no real tradition in the Netherlands of baking Christmas cookies during Advent the way there is in Germany for baking Plätzchen (a collective name for cookies baked in the weeks leading up to Christmas, to then have on hand for all the Christmas festivities). The main reason my mother, my sister, and I learned about the German tradition was because of Burda, the monthly German sewing magazine my mother subscribed to. After music, sewing clothes was my mother’s biggest hobby. She found it important to read the original German version of the magazine, not the Dutch translation, as it contained too many mistakes in the descriptions of the patterns. From Burda we learned all the German terminology for sewing clothes, but also German words to describe a nice dress, such as “Bildhüpsch!” and “Todschick!” (I still make my German friends here in California laugh with those). There were also recipes in the magazine, and the November issue always featured pages and pages of delectable Plätzchen. Our hair stylist in the small town where we lived was from Germany, and he had good stories about the Advent baking traditions, which further inspired us.
My sister was the baker in the family, I was the cook. So while my sister bakes Plätzchen around this time of year, I never baked anything, at least not until I had kids and my mother gave me a little nudge. It was 2007 — my oldest was in Kindergarten and my parents were visiting for several weeks (they would arrive at the end of November, celebrate St. Nicholas with us, and that year stayed until after Christmas (the next two years they went home before Christmas to help run the Christmas Eve service at their church in The Hague). My mother asked me: “Shouldn’t we bake kruidkoek (Dutch spice cake) for his teachers and for your friends?” The recipe was from her mother (my grandmother, who’s almost 103 years old now). That year my mother baked ten mini-cakes, as you can see in this photo. We did this together for about three years I think, the last time in 2009.
Kruidkoek Dutch coffee cake with spices Recipe from my grandmother:
For 1 large loaf pan or 5 mini loaf pans:
16 oz flour 3 teaspoons baking powder 10 oz dark sugar 1.5 cup raisins 1/2 cup candied orange peel 1/2 cup molasses 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon each cloves, nutmeg, pepper, optional: 1 teaspoon ginger powder
[note: the pepper can be overwhelming if you don’t like it spicy, and my sister never adds it]
mix together and add as much milk (or water, or orange juice) to make a mud-like dough. You can add hazelnuts instead of, or in addition to the raisins at this stage too if you like.
bake for 60 minutes at 330 F / 165 C or little longer for the large loaf
The spices in kruidkoek are quite similar to those in Speculaas, so when the scent of Speculaas was filling the house this afternoon, I had to think of baking kruidkoek with my mother.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent. I continue to recommend La Festa Musicale’s beautiful series of Advent Chorales on YouTube. Their offering for this Sunday is Johann Crüger’s 1640 setting of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star). With an almost overwhelming number of performances appearing online over the past weeks, I really wanted to offer some new writing today. There is so much to tell about this particular chorale and all the ways Bach used it in his cantatas. And it helps that today is a rainy Sunday here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When Crüger wrote his setting in 1640, the chorale melody already existed. The chorale is generally attributed to Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608), but the melody of Nicolai’s hymn might have been based on an existing hymn (with different text) from Wolff Köphel’s 1538 Psalter hymnal. Nicolai wrote the hymn in 1597, when the town where he preached was ravaged by the plague. During that time, as Eduard van Hengel suggests, Nicolai must have had to bury dozens of members of his congregation each day. He published it two years later, as part of a hymnal meant to provide comfort in those trying times, called Freudenspiegel des ewigen Lebens (Mirror of Joy of the Life Everlasting). This publication also featured the famous Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme (Wake up, the voice calls us).
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern was most likely a compelling chorale for Bach. He used it in many cantatas (see below), but the melody first appears in an organ work. In fact, the score of this organ fantasia on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 739) is the oldest surviving manuscript by Bach. Paper analysis has shown that the piece must have been notated between 1703 and 1709. (Thanks to the Netherlands Bach Society for providing this information on their website).
After that, in cantata movements, Bach would either use the original melody (Nicolai’s, see picture above), or Crüger’s version of it. The difference appears in the third line of text, and can be seen in this image, at superscript number 6. Green is Nicolai’s version, blue is Crüger’s.
In these two cantatas, Bach used Crüger’s version:
Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, written for the Annunciation of Mary, March 25, in 1725. It is one of my favorites because of the two French horns in the opening chorus. This was the last of Bach’s 1724/1725 continuous series of chorale cantatas, and to me, it communicates a similar Advent sparkle as Cantata 62 from that same series.* Per the standard format for these cantatas, Bach featured the first verse of the chorale in the opening movement, and the last verse in the final movement. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here. Soloists are Eva Oltiványi, soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; and Manuel Walser, bass. To understand why it might make sense that the theme of Advent is celebrated on the feast of the Annunciation, please find my blog post from 2018 about Cantata 1 here.
Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully up), an extra-long cantata in two parts, written for the first Sunday of Advent in 1731. The cantata was based on a secular cantata from 1725** but for this First Advent occasion, Bach included several movements based on two Advent chorales: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come now, Savior of the Gentiles) in the soprano-alto duet, the second tenor aria, and the closing chorale; and the sixth verse of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in the chorale at the end of Part I of the cantata.
Bach used Nicolai’s version of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern in the following cantata movements, each time in a different way:
The penultimate movement of Cantata 172 Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! (Ring out, you songs, resound, you strings!) for Pentecost in 1714 (verse 4)
The closing chorus from Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland for the First Sunday of Advent in 1714 (last 4 lines of verse 7)
The chorale for soprano and alto (3rd movement) from Cantata BWV 37 Wer da gläubet und getauft wird (Whoever believes and is baptized) for the feast of Ascension in 1724 (verse 5)
As far as we know, Bach wrote only one cantata for this Third Sunday of Advent. It is the one listed in the BWV catalog as Cantata 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht, first performed in Weimar on Sunday December 13, 1716. Read my blog post from 2016 and 2017 about this cantata here.
Wieneke Gorter, December 13, 2020.
*Find my first blog post about Cantata 62 here and a more detailed explanation of how it fits into the series of chorale cantatas here.
**Read more about the history of Cantata 36 in my post from 2017 here.
Again this blog has several new followers this week. Welcome!
If you joined after December 2019, you might like to read my post about the Second Sunday of Advent here. Also, today, December 6, Nikolaus Harnoncourt would have turned 91. His recordings, his cello playing, and his conducting were a great source of inspiration to my mother. Read more about that here.
For those of you who have been following this blog for a while, I have two beautiful new recordings for you today. They are not by Bach, because Bach wrote only one cantata for this Sunday. But they do give an idea of the chorales that would have been sung in the Leipzig churches during the sober, cantata-free time between the First Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day. (Though they wouldn’t have been accompanied by the pretty instruments featured in the videos I’m sharing here.)
The German ensemble La Festa Musicale has created four videos, one for each Sunday in Advent, each featuring an Advent chorale by Johann Crüger (1598-1662). They have been releasing one video per week. Start with Wie soll ich dich empfangen (O Lord, how shall I meet Thee), in a fabulous and very moving performance by Alex Potter. Then listen to Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come, Savior of the Gentiles). There are only two singers in this second one (soprano Magdalene Harer and countertenor Alex Potter), but in the final movement it sounds as if an entire choir is singing, thanks to instruments doubling the voice parts and excellent acoustics.
This was exactly the kind of music I needed this week. For me, this week, La Festa Musicale wins the Internet.
Wieneke Gorter, December 6, 2020
I didn’t create an Advent calendar this year, but the J.S. Bach Foundation has a nice one. You can find it here.
Hello everyone. I hope you are all safe and well. Thank you for reading this blog, and a warm welcome to all of you who started following recently. Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday:
In Weimar, in 1714, Bach wrote Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. This one I remember the best from my childhood, because my mother loved Seppi Kronwitter’s singing of the soprano aria on the Harnoncourt recording. Read about it here.
In Leipzig, in 1724, Bach wrote Cantata 62 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. My most recent writing about this cantata is from last week, not for this blog, but for that of California Bach Society. Find it here.
Since the release of Herreweghe’s recording in 1997 I have been in love with the opening chorus of Cantata 62. For me, nothing says “Christmas is coming” more strongly to me than this music. And yes, Bach wrote two Advent cantatas with the same title. You better not mix them up when you have been engaged to sing the bass solos. Read a story about that here. If you would like to learn more about this opening chorus, or even sing along to it yourself, I encourage you to sign up for California Bach Society’s free workshop on this cantata this coming Saturday, December 5, at 11 am Pacific Time, on Zoom.
In 1731, Bach transformed a secular birthday cantata from 1725 into Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor. Read about it here. My favorite interpretation of the soprano aria is by Nuria Rial. I first heard Nuria Rial sing on the German radio station WDR3, exactly one month after my mother passed away in 2010. I was staying at my parents’ house in the Netherlands with my kids. My mother had always preferred the German classical music station over the Dutch one, especially for their Early music programming, so WDR3 was pre-programmed into my parents’ fancy equipment. The radio host played a piece from this album, and I was mesmerized. After it was over I went on Facebook and told all my singer friends (that’s why I still know what day it was). But I didn’t find out about her live recording of the soprano aria from Cantata 36 with the J.S. Bach Foundation until 2014.